COAST And Country: Summer In Full — But Also Potentially Deadly — Bloom

8 July, 2021 | Features

IF you want to see summer’s wild plants at their most vibrant, take a walk along any of Inverclyde’s countryside or coastal paths and you won’t be disappointed, writes David Carnduff.

After the first flush of wildflowers during spring, Inverclyde’s flora hits overdrive in July when warmth and extra daylight provide ideal growing conditions.

Self heal. Photo by David Carnduff

Colourful favourites such as dog rose, ragged robin, meadow pea and vetch are a feast for the eyes. Not only that, many wayside plants are valued not just for their beauty but also for cooking and medicinal purposes, although perhaps less so in recent times.

Take, for example, the little blue flower called self heal which grows abundantly throughout the area, happily popping up on unmown lawns, verges and waste ground.

As its name suggests, the plant is reputed to have healing properties, and an infusion of its leaves and flowers was commonly taken in days of yore to keep ailments at bay.

Its healing reputation seems to have known no bounds, as First Nations people in Canada and other world cultures valued the benign qualities of this little plant, which has the Latin name “Prunela”, meaning “Little Plum”.

However, among summer’s floral stars, lurk a few nasty surprises, especially in a group known as the umbellifers — tall, leafy plants with plate-like clusters of tiny white flowers.

Many umbellifers are used in cooking: for example, carrots, coriander, celery, and fennel. But there’s another — hemlock water dropwort — which wild foragers must avoid like the plague.

Hemlock water dropwort. Photo by David Carnduff

That’s because every part of the plant is highly poisonous, especially the parsnip-like roots which have been appropriately named “dead man’s fingers”.

Occasionally, the roots are exposed during winter storms and dog walkers are warned to be aware of the dangers posed to pets snuffling around for tasty bites in the undergrowth where dropwort may be growing.

Consumption of even small amounts can be deadly for humans and animals.

I read a gruesome account recently of how dropwort gave rise to the expression “sardonic smile”, a reference to the once widespread use of the plant for executions in Sardinia.

The powerful poison acted on facial muscles, drawing the face of the condemned individual into a grotesque “Sardinian” or sardonic smile as death approached.

Poisonings — accidental or otherwise — now are very rare.

So thank goodness for Little Prunela — much more my cup of tea, thank you very much.

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